Sage scholar Richard Davis speaks on life in music, academia and what the future holds
By Anaré V. Holmes
Richard Davis is the purveyor of rhythm, time and space.
As a master bassist of both classical and jazz music, he answered the call on his life to lead the tempo of both bands and scholarly beacons through steely determination and the adept understanding of the oneness found in all of humanity.
We at Compass Senior Solutions celebrate Davis on his recent retirement as the Professor of Bass (European Classical and Jazz), Jazz History and Combo Improvisation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
His career in academia was made possible after he established himself as one of the world’s premier and sought after bass accompanists.
Scoring performance credits on more than 3,000 recordings, Davis has played with musical luminaries that include: Ben Webster, Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphin, Dexter Gordon, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, Miles Davis, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band and Ahmad Jamal.
Extending his self-expression beyond music and classroom instruction, Davis is a social change and justice advocate.
Chosen as a 2014 “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts, Davis shares the makings of his life in music, academia and what the future holds.
Some say the bass player has the most critical role in the band. Everyone in the group depends on the bassist’s subtle or not-so-subtle lead. How did you come to play that instrument?
Davis: Music was all around me in my neighborhood in Chicago. I lived near E. 47th and S. Champlain Ave. and blues players and bands were everywhere. I had a cousin who suggested I play the bass and as a shy kid I gravitated to it because it was in the background. I liked watching how other played the bass and thought I’d like to do that.
But I did not get serious about it until I got to DuSable High School and met this teacher name Walter Dyett. Do you know Walter Dyett?
He developed very good musicians. From Nat King Cole and Johnny Griffin to Dinah Washington and others.
He told me to play it all, meaning both the classics and jazz. The more you can do the better you are.
He inspired me so much so that I wanted to go to the same college he went to. That’s how I ended up going to Chicago’s VanderCook College of Music.
It’s one thing to have an interest in music, but how did you settle on making music a career?
Davis: My parents encouraged me. I had already started playing with both classical orchestras and jazz bands at night while I was in school. Ahmad Jamal and Sun Ra were some of the people I worked with.
You learned a great deal from Sun Ra.
Davis: Sun Ra and the guys I hung around were like 15 years older than I. Sun Ra had so much wisdom. He taught us how to fight against oppression. He would often say the problem with Black men is that they don’t answer a question [asked by whites] directly, head on.
I remember when I got a draft notice to serve in the military. Sun Ra basically coached us on how to handle the situation.
What did you do?
Davis: I could not see myself killing anybody based on my life’s philosophy. So, I took all the articles I could find on Emmett Till down with me to my appointment with the military board.
I asked them why should I go and fight a war when [racial violence] was going on here in the United States. I then asked them whom did they think I would shoot, if they gave me a loaded rifle.
Later on during the military assessment I said I am not a Negro.
I asked them what land is the Negro from.
I refused to sign the paper where it said Negro on applicant forms.
Funny thing was—they had a Black guy in the room who had more stripes on his shirt than a Zebra. He told me, “don’t you ever let them [White folks] hear you say these things.”
Suffice it to say, they rejected your application to serve.
Davis: Exactly. They already knew I had a bad knee and once I said I am a musician they thought I was crazy [Laughter fills the air.]
Several years later you end up in New York, playing for Sarah Vaughan.
Davis: When I was 24, I went to New York with Don Shirley. Johnny Pate, who had been playing with Don, recommended me because he did not want to go to New York. So I took Pate’s place with Don and Pate took my place with Ahmad Jamal.
New York frightened me to a degree, so I asked Pate if I could have my job back with Ahmad. Luckily for me, he said I could not have my job back and that I belonged in New York. So I was made to go to New York. I tell that story of fear out of personal experience and I encourage students who have that fear to go ahead and jump in the water.
How did you manage to avoid the pitfalls of drug and alcohol addiction often associated with many talented artists?
Davis: I had no interest in that. I also attribute my parents and good home training with helping me avoid those things as well.
How did you land a teaching gig at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
Davis: I didn’t know anything about Madison or Wisconsin. I knew Jimmy Cheatham, the founder and director of the Experimental Improvisational Black Music Ensemble, who taught at UW-Madison from 1974 to 1978.
Jimmy came out to my house in New York and convinced me to join the teaching staff here.
I didn’t know anything about the academic world.
So, I asked a friend who did know about academia and he told me before I take the job ask for tenure.
I said what is tenure. My friend said, it means they can’t fire you.
So, I asked for tenure.
How did UW-Madison administrators react to your request for tenure?
Davis: They were a little taken aback. They said they wanted 10 letters from my peers referencing my work and knowledge as a jazz musician. The first person to write a letter for me was Leonard Bernstein. Other letters came from Leopold Stokowski, Leon Barzin, Sarah Vaughan, Laura Nyro and other people I’d worked with.
The university eventually hired me with tenure and purposely set my schedule to work on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That schedule made it possible for me to continue to tour.
What was it like being one of the few Black professors on campus?
Davis: When I first arrived, I was a bit naïve and thought the college and university level was beyond and more advanced when it came to handling issues of racism and discrimination. I learned quickly that was not the case.
Some of my colleagues took issue that I came to the campus with tenure and would let me know how some of them were not granted tenure yet.
But, I was never afraid to speak my mind. When I felt like things were not right or that I, or other Black faculty members, and students were not being treated right, I did something about it.
Is that what inspired your activism on campus?
Davis: Yes. But, my activism on campus really picked up in 1993. At the time, Dr. Paul Barrows and Ruby Paredes served as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Assistance Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. They were working to help retain students of color on campus and help make the campus climate more comfortable and productive for those students.
I became one of Paul’s lieutenants in that fight.
He made sure I had license to do different things like the creation of the Retention Action Project. I would talk to professors to discuss multicultural differences and find ways we could build a stronger sense of community on campus.
I later started the Madison Wisconsin Institute for the Healing of Racism to raise awareness about the history and pathology of racism.
I began to open up my home to have some of these meetings and still do so today.
How would you describe the state of Black people and race relations today?
Davis: I give Black people an A+ for surviving. We endure and continue to make progress. Our cultural gifts and intellectual contributions to the world cannot be denied. However, we must continue to fight for equality and inclusion.
What is your approach to teaching and working with students?
Davis: I learned a lot about life and living from Sun Ra, Walter Dyett and other great teachers I had. And when you learn about life, you put that into your music. I try to do that with my students.
Let’s play a word association game. We’ll name an artist or musician you have played with and you tell us what words comes to mind.
Davis: Composer and conductor extraordinaire. His music is challenging
Davis: Superb. He defined cool. He worked and lived life on his terms.
Davis: Laura was a peach. She was a loveable person who cared about her musicians. As musicians she made certain we earned higher salaries.
Davis: She is very much into the music and musicianship.
Davis: I tell people all the time I went to the University of Sarah Vaughan when I describe working with her and her band. She sings with such an aggressive interpretation of cords. She is so musical. She had Jimmie Jones, one of the best piano players in the world. The harmonies he and her developed were so modern. And, Roy Haynes on the drum, he was phenomenal. He recommended me for the job with Sarah. I learned so much about music with her.
What are you looking forward to as you begin a new chapter in life?
Davis: I am working with my daughter on my autobiography. I am also working on my next CD and look forward to composing more music. I will continue to teach privately and I’m especially look excited about continuing the work I do in the community to help enlighten others.